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In Milwaukee, Marquette lacrosse begins unlikely success story

In Milwaukee, Marquette lacrosse begins unlikely success story
Attackman Conor Gately has helped lead Marquette to an unbeaten start, posting 13 goals and six assists. (Marquette athletics)

Upon first glance, it looks like a mistake.

Marquette (7-0), a school that began playing Division I lacrosse only two years ago, is ranked No. 10 nationally, right behind traditional powers Cornell, Maryland and Virginia and only nine spots away from No. 1 Syracuse.

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Something has to be wrong, right?

"Oh, we've talked about it. We had to," Golden Eagles coach Joe Amplo said of the national ranking. "When I was at Hofstra" — he graduated in 2000 — "coach John Danowski told us not to pay attention to the press clippings. With social networks these days, you know the players are going to find it and read it somewhere online.

"I reminded them that we needed to play with the same edge that got us here through the end of the season. I reminded them that we're only four goals away from four losses and having nobody talking about us."

That's vintage Amplo, and he's right. Marquette hasn't beaten a top-10 team, but the Golden Eagles have won one-goal wins over Lehigh, Hofstra and Richmond as well as a 10-9 victory over Ohio State on March 1.

That might normally make Amplo and the Golden Eagles a little bigheaded. But he remembers his first day on the job: Feb. 5, 2011. Amplo and several assistant coaches didn't have equipment managers, so they had to go to a department store to buy laundry detergent for their uniforms and equipment.

"I don't know if we are ahead of schedule or where we are supposed to be because I had no idea of what I was doing when I got here," said Amplo, laughing. "I really didn't. All I knew was that we had to find the right kids that were the right fit for this program and the university."

When starting a program, always look for players who have something to prove. Amplo actually could have recruited himself, a former walk-on at Hofstra who became a first-team All-America East Conference performer. He was a longtime assistant coach and defensive coordinator with the Pride before taking over at Marquette.

"He was a outstanding assistant, had worked under Seth Tierney, so he knew the Hopkins way, and was from Long Island with connections on the East Coast," said Chesapeake Bayhawks coach and president Dave Cottle, a lead consultant in the hiring of Amplo for Marquette.

"The administrators loved him here from Day 1," he said. "He knew the family atmosphere they had at Marquette and the support he was going to get from athletics and admissions. They knew he was interested in the well-being and development of his athletes not just as players, but as students."

Getting those student-athletes was going to be a problem. Marquette is a Jesuit University located in Milwaukee, a city known for its extremely cold and bitter winters.

The Midwest is also not exactly a hub for lacrosse, a sport that is mostly played in the spring and summer months.

"Selling Marquette was the easy part because this is a great school with high academic standards," Amplo said. "The hard part was the geography, of getting them to make a visit. Once they got here, they loved it.

"It was just a matter of finding the right kid. And though we have had some success, we know we still have to stay true to our roots and find a different player, not the great ones, but ones that are hungry. Teams with recent success like Richmond and High Point show that there is a lot of talent out here."

It sounds like a cliche, but the key to Marquette's success is its chemistry. The Golden Eagles have to like each other, because the area's cold weather forced them to play 90 percent of their games on the road during their first three seasons.

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This year, Marquette will have traveled 15,000 miles before it plays its first home game April 4 against St. John's. Its team spirit, combined with the maturation of its young players, has started to pay off.

The Golden Eagles don't wow anyone with talent. They play unselfish ball on offense, a mix of the Canadian and American games. Marquette will give up a 12-yard shot and pass it six more times for a 6-yard opportunity.

Senior attackman Jordan Greenfield leads the Golden Eagles in scoring with 19 goals and 11 assists, followed by junior attackman Conor Gately (13 goals, six assists) and midfielders Ryan McNamara (12-4) and Kyle Whitlow (10, 6).

Marquette is averaging 11.4 goals a game but needs its defense to improve. The Golden Eagles are allowing 8.6 goals a game, and they still have Villanova, St. John's, No. 4 Notre Dame, No. 3 Denver and No. 5 Duke on the schedule.

"I'm not surprised at their success, and I think it will continue," Cottle said. "At Marquette, it is not about the buildings. It's about the people. It's special, and they have a special coach. It's all about commitment, and they are on to something."

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